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Welcome to Gun Land: Utah concealed firearm permits attract gun lovers, critics

Published: Sunday, March 27 2011 12:04 a.m. MDT

Stan Nelson loads his rifle at the Bountiful Lions Club Range.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Tony Sabatino is pondering the donuts and drinks as he stands in the hotel meeting room, a little bleary-eyed from a cross country flight and a drive through all the snow that accumulated overnight. He'll fly home to New York less than 24 hours after starting this first-ever trip to Utah, his sole goal to attend this five-hour class.

Tired or not, though, he's attentive as he learns to teach the class that will provide his East Coast neighbors a popular prize: A Utah concealed firearm permit.

There is perhaps no easier place in the United States to get a gun, or a permit to carry one around, than the Beehive State, a place that seems to love guns as much as its pioneer heritage.

Utah is the first and only state to choose an official gun to go with its state flower and flag and bird — the Browning M1911 semiautomatic pistol — courtesy of the most recent legislative session (it's a nod to the fact that gun maker John Browning was born here not long after Mormon pioneers settled the area). Utah's concealed firearm permit is a favorite with gun enthusiasts all over the United States. A whopping three-fourths of those who applied for one last year, more than 51,000 people, came from outside the state.

Guns trade hands freely here, as well. In 2010, firearms dealers ran more than 127,000 background checks of Utah gun buyers, but that's likely a fraction of the guns sold in the state. No one knows how many guns are sold among friends or passed to a new owner in a parking lot in a private deal. There's talk of a flourishing black market, since private sales aren't monitored and the law doesn't require a background check for those, something licensed dealers must get. Sources suggest the big taboos — selling guns to minors, to criminals, to those who live in another state — occur often enough to be worrisome, but they are mostly uncounted and unchecked.

On KSL.com, one of the places where buyers and sellers meet, about 750 handguns are listed for sale at any given time and there churn in constant, and to some, alarming. Most of the guns seem to sell in just days, replaced by new listings for different weapons. In February alone, 2,436 handgun postings were carried, with everything from Glocks to Rugers to the Draco AK-47 pistol.

The fact that some of those guns end up in the hands of criminals has caused management at KSL.com, which is owned by the same company as the Deseret News, to consider whether it should continue to list firearms, or at least handguns (see accompanying story).

"We want to better understand the possibility of people using KSL Classifieds to circumvent gun laws," said KSL.com general manager Brett Atkinson, who noted that the matter will be investigated carefully over the next month.

In a country with plenty of gun lovers, Utah manages to stand out. It is here that guns are allowed on public university campuses statewide, either carried openly or concealed with a state-issued permit. A few states are debating following Utah's lead, but currently there is no other state that allows guns on all public campuses.

Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, is one of Utah's most ardent advocates of Second Amendment rights. Last legislative session, he sponsored the bill naming the state firearm and also tried unsuccessfully to do away with concealed weapons permits. Under the Second Amendment, he said, the permit isn't needed.

Unabashed in his passion for guns, Wimmer could be seen on the House floor with his own sidearm strapped to his belt. He is proud of Utah's gun-rich history.

"Utah is a very traditional, conservative state, where we believe in the Second Amendment right to bear arms," said Wimmer. "Guns are a big part of our state tradition. If you think of the Mormon Pioneers, I mean, they came into the valley holding a plow in one hand, and a gun in the other. Guns are a tool, nothing else but a tool."

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